A while back, I had the honor of meeting a pair of sisters in an area nursing home. Little sister was 99 years old and big sister was 104.
As I congratulated the pair, a cranky 93-year old lady in the next wheel chair said in a voice so loud you couldn't help but hear, "People live too darn long these days!"
That's the sort of frank wisdom you get at the nursing home.
A week later, I munched at a local Dairy Queen. Two ladies in their mid-90s sat in the next booth. Both half deaf, they shouted at each other throughout the meal. I didn't have to strain to hear what they were saying.
The main topic? A 103-year-old man who came through the front door to buy a burger. Still lives at home. Still walks uptown every day for a noon meal.
On my way out the door, I took a good look at the man as he stood in line to order. He didn't look a day over 85. Amazing.
Yes, we're living longer. To that end, we take pills to keep our cholesterol down starting in our 40s. The pills are so our vessels and veins don't get clogged up, which can cause a fatal system crash.
In our 50s, we take another pill to keep our blood pressure under control so we don't have a stroke when the Viagra kicks in.
In our 60s, we start replacing body parts. We get new valves. We get electric tickers to keep our heart going. You can even buy a gadget now that they'll put in your chest that automatically gives you a high-voltage jolt if your heart stops.
In our 70s, the joints start to go, so we find a surgeon who's good with the Skil saw and start replacing those, one-by-one, until we have all new.
We live so long that some people wear out their new body parts. "This new hip is a lot better than the last one," they say as they compare joints at the cafe.
In the old days, men argued Chevy vs. Ford, John Deere vs. Allis Chalmers. Today, those same men compare hip companies and blood pressure medications. I am waiting for caps and t-shirts.
Oops. I forgot. We're already there: I have a free note pad advertising Cerflexorate, whatever that is (make sure to ask your doctor if you might need it even though you don't know what it is), as well as a pen promoting happy pills.
The smart ones stash the manual for their new hip in the same kitchen drawer where they put the instructions for the appliances. Some of those hips have a pretty good warranty, but you have to send in the card.
Are we far from the day when we'll go to a big discount store to pick out our new joints from a bin? Will we wait for the spring close-out on 2012 model knees before scheduling the surgery? Will joint stores offer extended warranties for an extra $1,599?
One result of all this fixing and preventing and bypassing and drugging is that eventually something's going to happen to us that they haven't yet figured out how to fix. And that something isn't always as nice as the prevented alternative.
They seem to have most heart problems under control, but they haven't got a complete grip on cancer yet--and what a nasty monster it is.
Why the apparent increase in Alzheimer's disease? Well, people are living long enough to eventually come down with it.
Dementia is so cruel. The personality the family once knew disappears, yet there sits the person -- still here, but not.
Which is just to say that despite all the advances in modern medicine, we remain mortal. No matter how many battles over our bodies we win, we will lose the war.
We have a ways to go before we accept our mortality. Our culture says we must stave off the end, no matter what.
But for all the billions we spend avoiding the inevitable, fixing this disease, that malady, only to live long enough to get another, we're eventually going to have to wrestle with the big question raised by the cranky lady above: Is there ever such a thing as living too darn long?